Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

History Repeats Itself

As Marx noted with sarcasm, if history repeats itself, the first time may have been a “tragedy” but the second time it’s a “farce”. That is how it seems to be with the never-ending repeated and often ridiculous attempts to find a solution to the Brexit conundrum, to devise an Irish border which isn’t a border, and to find something which can deliver a majority of votes in a deeply divided Parliament.

Now, almost three years after the 2016 referendum, as time runs out for the deadline imposed by the Article 50 process, with their limited negotiating time further cut by the unnecessary interruption of the 2017 general election, Prime Minister May and her May-be colleagues are still scrabbling about, trying to come up with a last-minute deal.

Ironically, a previous British government did almost the same thing. Attlee had decided that India was to become independent from June 1948 but Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India,-suddenly decided to bring forward that date to August 1947: “announcing his plan on 3 June 1947, Mountbatten had allowed just over ten weeks for its implementation” which appalled his staff:

There was to be no time for second thoughts, and precious little time for negotiation. That was the point. As he advised London, speed - one might almost say panic - was of the essence... For Mountbatten this urgency was tactical: it would concentrate minds... and narrow the options.
John Keay, MIDNIGHT'S DESCENDANTS, 2014 , p34

Cutting the time available to plan and negotiate the Partition involved splitting the provinces of Punjab and Bengal and a hasty drawing of lines on a map by an English judge who lacked knowledge of India’s complexities.

The result meant mass migrations of untold millions of frightened and fearful people and many gruesome massacres, while its legacy is still at the heart of the unresolved conflict over Kashmir.

So much for Mountbatten’s supposed “masterstroke”. The hasty conclusion of Mountbatten’s ‘negotiation’ left behind as its legacy two hostile states, with nuclear weapons, many grievances, and ongoing, still unresolved, border disputes: this was in anyone’s book an epic tragedy.

And now another botched negotiation, to extricate Britain from the EU, is similarly running down the clock, running out of time against a fixed deadline, with the limited negotiating time cut short by the PM’s decision to stop everything and hold a General Election and many delays since. That seems to be a copy of Mountbatten’s 1947 “masterstroke”, a shambolic and farcical echo of that terribly tragic 1947 misjudgement. Marx might have chuckled at the irony.

Brexit and Labour’s Left

While the Tory Party has long been divided on the issue of Europe, with the Eurosceptics gaining strength with the growth of UKIP support among their constituency supporters and financial backers, there has also been a long-term division in the Labour Party on this issue.

For decades the Left was anti-EU. For instance, Harold J Laski in WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (Penguin,1949) opposed proposals for a federated Europe. This had been suggested earlier (e.g. by Dr W I Jennings A FEDERATION FOR WESTERN EUROPE, 1940), as a means of preventing yet another pan-European war in the future.

In particular, Laski argued (p123):

Free migration ... whether of capital or labour means, as before, under the present system, the use of lower-paid and unorganised labour to attack the standards it [labour] has won so painfully in the better-developed countries...

Laski also opposed this federation as utopian: the nation-state and nationalism were the outcome of the capitalist system, of the competing economic interests of the capitalist class:

They seek to pool sovereignties without attempting to grapple with the vested interest within each state which have so far ... prevented the pooling of sovereignties (p122).

Ironically, as Laski was so far to the left of Labour as to be counted a fellow -traveller, a sympathiser with Stalinism, his position opposing freedom of movement for labour was very like that of the Tory Prime Minister today - though for different reasons. And his criticism of the federated Europe proposal - because this would conflict with the national sovereignty which represented the economic interests of the various nation-states - was not too many miles away from the classic Eurosceptic-UKIP nationalism.

A later spokesman of Labour’s Left, Tony Benn also held strong views against the Common Market/EEC/EU. At the time of the referendum in 1975, Benn made some notes:

The European Community has set itself the objectives of developing a common foreign policy, a form of common nationality expressed through a common passport, a directly elected assembly and economic and monetary union which, taken together, would in effect make the United Kingdom into one province of a Western European state. Continuing membership of the Community would therefore mean the end of Britain as a self-governing nation and of our democratically elected Parliament as the supreme law-making body of the United Kingdom (notes from THE BEST OF BENN, ed. Ruth Winstone, 2014, p105).

At that time Tony Benn was a minister in the Wilson government, and his argument was based on the issue of national sovereignty and the sovereignty of Parliament. He did not take Laski’s line that the nation-state is an expression of the competing economic interests of the capitalist class, nor did he take up the question raised by Laski that, in a common market with free movement of labour, the result would be damaging to the interests of the working class due to “the use of lower-paid and unorganised labour to attack the standards it [labour] has won so painfully”.

Labour’s Left is now represented by Corbyn and his long-term position, prior to becoming ‘leader’ of the Labour Party, was anti-EU. But his becoming a party ‘leader’, while giving him a better platform to air his views, at the same time meant he was gagged, acting as just a party spokesman. Labour as a party is split on the issue.

To Socialists, the Brexit issue is a neutral non-issue. Whether or not British capitalist businesses operate with tariff-free trade in a common market, the production for profit system, cannot be made to work in the interests of the working class.

But we do hold very definite views about the nauseous rhetoric of the Brexit campaign: it was toxic, in its racism, xenophobia and appeal to naked nationalism. Nationalism as the driving force behind Brexit helps explain why the May government so quickly announced an end to “free movement”.

Yet freedom of movement can help to develop a better understanding between working people and to erode that nationalism, that so-called patriotism, which is used to mobilise workers’ support for capitalism’s wars. To encourage internationalism is in line with the Socialist slogan “workers of all lands, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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